Mayor Lucas Ramirez shares what inspired Mountain View’s newest homelessness initiatives

The City of Mountain View’s recent efforts to increase affordable housing production and help low-income residents maintain housing stability demonstrate the City’s commitment to help end and prevent homelessness in Santa Clara County. To understand what inspired these actions, Destination: Home sat down with Mountain View Mayor Lucas Ramirez to learn more.

Mountain View recently established a unique partnership with Santa Clara County to develop several supportive housing developments, with four already in the pipeline and others yet to be defined. What motivated the city to collaborate with the County this way?

Discussions for this partnership were born out of a recognition that we have a lot of affordable housing in the pipeline but not a lot of local funding available for the construction. The value of the MOU with the County is the certainty that we’ll have a substantial amount of county funding that can be leveraged with local, state and federal funding to help deliver the affordable housing projects in the pipeline, and also construct affordable housing on the land that will be made available to the City as part of some of these other opportunities. That was really the impetus for this partnership and memorandum of understanding. 

Were there advantages to the City in negotiating an agreement covering multiple development opportunities as opposed to negotiating with the County project by project?

The City established a goal several years ago to construct between 200 and 250 units of permanent supportive housing – which is pretty ambitious when the cost of land acquisition and construction is so high. So, part of the value of this agreement is that it provides certainty for the City and prospective developers that there will be funding available to deliver certain projects. 

In addition, this agreement provided us flexibility in where those units will be constructed. So it’s not one project with 200 or 250 permanent supportive units. It’s multiple projects that each include units set aside for formerly chronically unhoused people, extremely low-income families, and low-income families. And so we’re able to better serve a variety of communities in the City and build out permanent supportive housing with greater geographic equity.

We know that more deeply affordable and supportive housing is needed to end homelessness, but it can be a challenge for a smaller locality like Mountain View. How are you overcoming some of the barriers?

Partnerships, I think, are the name of the game. We’ve been talking about the partnership with the County, which has been essential because the County provides services in addition to funding, but we’ve also been working extremely well with nonprofits like Destination: Home – which has been helpful in securing grants and providing advocacy and technical assistance – and LifeMoves which has been helping create interim and transitional housing, which is instrumental in getting folks into a safer, habitable environment while we work towards delivering some of these desperately-needed permanent supportive projects. 

We also have robust partnerships with affordable housing developers. Alta Housing is working on Lot 12, Charities Housing is working on a project at Montecito, Eden Housing up in La Avenida, and First Community [Housing] on El Camino Real. These are the folks who are actually going to be doing the construction, going through the development review process, working with the community to help build support and there are many others; I feel badly that I might fail to credit appropriately. 

In addition, Google has been a tremendous partner. LinkedIn, providing funding, and the Google [North Bayshore] Master Plan, dedicating land. The Housing Trust worked most recently with Charities Housing to acquire some land on Evelyn next to what’s currently a safe parking site operated by Move Mountain View in partnership with the City of Mountain View and the County of Santa Clara as well. 

All of these partnerships are necessary to actually achieve the goal of housing the most vulnerable in our community. 

The City is also launching a Guaranteed Basic Income pilot – Elevate MV. What inspired you to take this approach to support vulnerable residents?

The discussion really began after President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act into law. It was the first time in American history that every local government, municipality and county in the country received direct financial assistance from the federal government and Mountain View was allocated roughly $15 million. The Council had to decide how to best invest that money into our community – and so we had a robust conversation, got a lot of community input and decided the most important thing was to ensure the most vulnerable in the community were stable and housed.

We decided to allocate $3 million into three different programs that put money into the hands of the families who were the most vulnerable – extremely low-income people (0-30% AMI). Of that, $1 million was allocated to a guaranteed basic income pilot program. That was a recommendation made by Councilmember Margaret Abe-Koga and supported by the full council. It took a lot of time and effort by our city staff – John Lang and members of the city manager’s office – who did a lot of research, worked with technical experts and crafted the program that ultimately was approved. 

It’s an exciting opportunity to provide ongoing financial assistance – not one-time cash direct assistance – and longer-term stability to give people the total control and flexibility to use funding in whatever way makes the most sense to them. It gives them breathing space while they find permanent housing, if that’s what they’re looking for, or a higher-paying job. 

Mountain View endorsed the countywide Community Plan to End Homelessness shortly after its release in 2020. Why was it important to the City to do so and how has it benefited the City’s efforts? 

The Community Plan to End Homelessness is a very compelling, multi-jurisdictional effort. The document is aspirational but also prescriptive in trying to help each jurisdiction within the county figure out what needs to be done to not only end homelessness but also provide interim relief and support for unhoused people. 

It was important for Mountain View to sign on – not just to say we’re supportive of this broader,  multi-jurisdictional effort to end homelessness – but also to create a set of goals, best practices and policies for ourselves that would help us achieve that goal. It’s one thing to say we’re going to end homelessness – every community wants to end homelessness – and entirely another thing to adopt the policies and programs that sometimes are politically challenging, sometimes they’re expensive, sometimes they’re high effort, and take a lot of staff time to achieve that goal.

The Community Plan to End Homelessness provides all the pieces we need – policies and programs – to achieve an ambitious goal and I think our adoption of it is a commitment to continue the work we’ve been doing for many years and step it up.

How can other cities replicate these efforts? What advice do you have for other cities in our community?

Here are some ideas:

  • Take advantage of city-owned, public-owned land. We’re not the only city in the county with land that can be developed for affordable housing or interim housing solutions. So, I think it’s important to take stock of city-owned, public land and see what opportunities exist there. 
  • Work collaboratively and closely with nonprofits interested in achieving these goals. Affordable housing developers may be reluctant to engage unless they know they have full support from the city, so partnership and speaking early is really important. 
  • Think about the funding you have available locally and how to generate more funding that can be leveraged with state and federal funding as well.  The City of San Jose was forward-thinking and approved Measure E, the progressive real estate transfer tax to provide a dedicated source of ongoing affordable housing funds. I think that’s something that the City of Mountain View should look at, and it’s something that other cities in the county should look at as well.
  • Think about the development standards and zoning that restrict the development of affordable housing. A major barrier is zoning. If you don’t allow multifamily zoning, then you’re not going to get multifamily affordable housing. Think about the process that often gets in the way and substantially delays projects. For example, SB 35 is a powerful tool that can streamline the approval for affordable housing.
  • Have tough conversations with constituents to see what they can support so each of us can do our fair share to provide affordable housing for our own communities. 

I could probably go on forever. There’s no shortage of work and there’s no shortage of opportunity. I think at this point, it’s just a matter of political will. It’s not easy, but it’s all necessary if we’re serious about achieving this goal. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add about Mountain View’s efforts to end homelessness? 

I don’t think I’ve done a good enough job of expressing appreciation for and thanking our city staff in Mountain View who actually implement all of this. There’s something to be said for the political will required to work with a neighborhood that may be skeptical about interim, transitional or permanent supportive housing. That’s my job and I’m happy to do it; I’m happy to work with partners like Destination: Home to build support for affordable housing within our communities. 

But at the end of the day, I’m not the one building the housing. That’s work done by our city staff and I’m immensely grateful for the work they’ve done especially during this pandemic. All of the credit goes to our staff for taking advantage of these opportunities, building these partnerships and delivering these projects.

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